Trump calls GOP defectors ‘disloyal.’ But the Founders would approve.
As we approach Election Day, more and more Republicans are abandoning Donald Trump, declaring that they can’t possibly vote for the mogul on November 8. GOP senators, members of Congress, even the party’s previous nominees and presidents, including Mitt Romney and George H.W. Bush, are disavowing Trump—and in some cases supporting his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Not since Democrats for Nixon estimated that 20 million Democrats would vote for Richard Nixon over George McGovern have so many people considered leaving their own party over a presidential race.
Trump and his supporters, for their part, are fighting back by attacking the party-bolters as disloyal: As Trump tweets that “Disloyal R’s” are “far more difficult than Crooked Hillary,” and “don’t know how to win,” furious Trumpistas are condemning the bolters as “cowards” and “sellouts.” Republican Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona has accused #NeverTrump Republicans of not just “betraying this party,” but “betraying the Constitution.”
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Franks and other Trump loyalists are overlooking one inconvenient fact: Party bolting has a long and noble history in American politics. Since the earliest days of the Republic, voters have chosen at times to abandon their party—whether in a one-time rejection of a particular nominee, or permanently. This kind of party flexibility is not only what the founders wanted, in theory it produces better leaders.
If party affiliations were as static as Trump’s rhetoric suggests, all election results would be foregone conclusions, and the once “solid South” would still be Democratic. In fact, today’s Republican Party not only benefited from the metamorphosis of millions of Southern Democrats into Republicans since 1964, but the most famous party-bolter in recent American history—Ronald Reagan—remains their hero.
It’s not an accident that U.S. political history has played out like this: America’s framers regarded political parties as necessary evils, and they tried hard to ensure these political factions wouldn’t remain permanent. They praised picky party members whose patriotism trumped party loyalty. The “public good is disregarded” when partisan allegiances outweigh “the rules of justice” and other, loftier considerations, James Madison warned. The framers wanted unfettered and vigilant voters choosing free agents for president—characters Alexander Hamilton called “preeminent for ability and virtue.”
Parties, as it turned out, ended up being more permanent than the founders hoped. Once they became politicians in the system they designed as philosophers, they realized that parties helped mobilize voters by building political identities—what we would now call brands—from election to election. Moreover, the system’s winner-take-all dynamics, granting leading vote-getters full but fleeting mandates to govern, encouraged long-standing broad coalitions, uniting politicians willing to compromise a little to have a shot at exercising a lot of power.
Still, early Americans dreamed of “enlightened statesmen” courageous enough to desert parties when necessary, not obedient soldiers loath to deviate, no matter what. Deep into the 1830s, former New York Congressman Gulian C. Verplanck and many others dismissed party men as “timid temporizing slaves of expediency.” The party loyalist “must shout huzzas or whisper calumnies, just as he is bidden,” lamented Verplanck, who shuttled between the Democrats and Whigs. “His time is not his own. His thoughts are not his own. His soul is not his own.”
Throughout the 19th century, voters debated whether to support “the man or the platform”—in other words, the person or the party. The resulting colorful history of party bolting includes several pivotal political resets, moments when parties either changed character, attracted new supporters or emerged victorious from a previous party’s wreckage. Most historians agree that so called realigning elections occurred in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896 and 1932—while still debating claims about more recent realignments such as 1968, 1980, 1992 and 2008. An early sign of the 1860 realignment, when the Whig Party collapsed and the anti-slavery Republican Party emerged, came in 1848. After the Whigs nominated the Southern plantation grandee General Zachary Taylor that year, some “Conscience Whigs” bolted, disgusted by their party’s support for a slave-holding candidate. The Republican Party some of those dissidents launched in 1854 would win 11 of the 13 presidential elections from 1860 through 1908.
Another major realigning election occurred during the economic crisis in 1932, when Republicans fled from their Depression-scarred nominee, incumbent Herbert Hoover, to Democratic nominee Franklin Roosevelt. Later, recalling that year’s upheaval, the Democratic operator Charles Michelson confessed, “Our ‘Republican for Roosevelt’ league, instead of being a mere gesture to scare the enemy, which is the usual measure of such bodies, was an actual fighting force.” Indeed, wooing refugees deserting the embattled Hoover, Roosevelt echoed the framers by addressing the converts. Speaking “as a citizen rather than as a partisan,” Roosevelt hailed these Republican renegades as a “group of public-minded citizens who have placed principle above party.”
Four years later, Roosevelt tasted his own medicine when leading Democrats, including the party’s 1928 nominee Al Smith, rejected FDR and formed the nonpartisan, anti-Roosevelt Liberty League. But Roosevelt was so effective at tarring those party mavericks as wealthy Neanderthals, he helped turned 1932’s anti-Hoover voters into lifelong Roosevelt Democrats.
As for more recent history, one could argue that another realigning election occurred in 1980, when the 20th century’s most famous crossover voter, Republican Ronald Reagan, who had once been a Democrat, persuaded millions of Roosevelt Democrats to vote for him instead of the Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter. That year, pundits christened Reagan’s white ethnic Democratic supporters “Reagan Democrats.” In the 1990s, Bill Clinton built his centrist “Third Way” hoping to woo those Democrats back—an effort only successful enough to help Clinton eke out two victories—each with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. By 2012, George Will noted, “White voters without college education—economically anxious and culturally conservative—were called ‘Reagan Democrats’ when they were considered only seasonal Republicans because of Ronald Reagan. Today they are called the Republican base.”
In times of relative party stability such as ours, party bolting has tended to be a more temporary phenomenon, with voters abandoning their party’s nominee for a single election, and returning afterward. The many Republicans who are fleeing the Trump train wreck but who plan to return in four years can take heart that many other honorable American voters before them have followed this path, too.
For example, Republican purists were torn in 1872. Their disgust for the corrupt, incompetent Republican President Ulysses S. Grant competed with their pride in the party of Lincoln many had founded just two decades earlier. One early Republican, George W. Julian, recalled: “I could not aid in the reelection of Grant without sinning against decency and my own self-respect.” The reformers launched the Liberal Republican Party, nominating the controversial Republican editor with a long history of baiting Democrats, Horace Greeley.
A Thomas Nast cartoon from the 1872 presidential campaign showing Horace Greeley forced to eat his own words.
Hoping to exploit Republican divisions, and determined first and foremost to oust Grant, the Democratic National Convention nominated their longtime foe, Greeley, two months after the Liberal Republican convention did. “Why, the honest, thinking mass of Democrats could no more vote [for Greeley] than a Jew be persuaded to eat pork!” the Democratic-leaning New York World sputtered.
The election became “a choice of two evils” for many, one Republican noted. “Has the country no choice for ruler,” the World’s editors wondered, “between a scheming, sordid despot [Grant] and [Greeley], a good-natured, hare-brained dreamer?” Republican Henry Lee expressed his party loyalty crudely: “We shall ‘return to our vomit’ and not try the new purge.” Grant won. But many outraged voters simply stayed home. The 71.3 percent voter turnout was the lowest from 1852 until 1904.
Other anomalous candidates that prompted mass, but mostly temporary, defections included the corrupt Republican nominee James G. Blaine in 1884, the lethargic Republican incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, the extremist Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the “amnesty, abortion and acid” Democrat George McGovern in 1972. The Southern Democrats who voted for Nixon that year anticipated the South’s eventual realignment, but most voted Democratic (for Jimmy Carter) four years later.
This year, few signs suggesting a permanent Republican realignment are present, despite the chaos-maker topping the ticket. As usual, the presidential campaign upheaval dominates the headlines, but true party strength emanates from the grass roots. Under Barack Obama, since 2009, Democrats have lost 919 state legislative seats. Republicans currently dominate most states, controlling 67 of 98 statehouses and Senate chambers while occupying 31 gubernatorial chairs. Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party has been so unusual, a surge of bolting Conscience Republicans on November 8, if it occurs, would likely prove to be fleeting, a one-time protest against a severely flawed nominee.
And here’s some more consolation for Republicans: Party bolting, if temporary, is not calamitous. After the short-lived but futile defections of 1872, Republicans won seven of the next 10 presidential contests. The GOP won five of the next six after the temporary defections of 1964.
In fact, party bolting is virtuous. Especially now, when a performance-driven, populist primary system allows independent outsiders from Obama to Trump to take over parties even when the establishment resists, party loyalty should never trump consideration of the candidate’s personality, policies, ideology or behavior. Even Hillary Rodham began as a Goldwater Girl, while Trump long bankrolled Democrats.
The founders’ mixed message about parties still resonates: Use these organizations as necessary, but don’t return to your own “vomit” without satisfactorily answering the presidential campaign’s central question: Which individual—of the choices offered—dare we entrust with so much power to best preserve, protect and defend the United States of America? Answer that question, without being blinded by party loyalty, and the framers believed the mass genius of the people would kick in, selecting the right person to lead our country.